2009-09-03 / Top News

Getting rid of the stress may not be as hard as you think

BY BILL CORNWELL bcornwell@floridaweekly.com

THE AGE OF 76, AMRIT DESAI, ONE OF THE WORLD'S LEADING yogi masters, has lived long enough to see his teachings about dealing with stress move from the fringe of American thought to a place closer to the intellectual middle ground.

Yogi Desai, whose workshop later this month on coping with stress is sponsored by The Rotary Club of Naples, acknowledges that skepticism about his use of yoga, breathing techniques and meditation remains rooted to some degree in an American society that is oriented toward quick fixes facilitated by the liberal use of a physician's prescription pad.

"People are looking for an easy solution to the real problem that is so hidden and so deep in the unconscious mind," he says as he sits for an interview in the lobby of the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club.

As society becomes more complex and economic times more uncertain, the pursuit of serenity is opening the minds of an increasing number of Americans to nontraditional practices. Moreover, job layoffs and the resulting loss of medical benefits and insurance can be an impetus to find new ways outside of a doctor's office to take control of physical and mental health.

Still, it is a big leap for many of Westerners to embrace ancient philosophies and practices set forty by New Age swamis, yogis and the like.

Yogi Desai says he can break through barriers of prejudice and ignorance if given an opportunity to present his case to the skeptics.

On this day, Yogi Desai has come from a bravura performance before The

Rotary Club, where he addressed a luncheon gathering ("You could have heard a pin drop when he spoke," gushes one attendee). If you are meeting Yogi Desai for the first time, you might expect to encounter someone more on the order of Maharishi Mahesh

Yogi, the hirsute mystic who guided the Beatles during their spiritual quest. If that is your expectation, you will be sorely disappointed. Dressed in a cotton kurta (one of those loose-fitting, pajama like shirts that drops to the knees or thereabouts), simple cotton slacks and sandals without socks (thank goodness for that), Yogi Desai could pass for a successful Indian businessman on holiday. His pewter-streaked hair is longer than most men in their mid-70s, but it is hardly radical in style. He speaks in slow, measured tones that, well, are pretty darn serene and stress reducing in their own right. He is quick to smile and unfailingly gracious. In short, this yogi has a terrific bedside manner, and it plays well with audiences around the globe.


Dr. Rose Thorn, a clinical psychologist who practices in Fort Myers, says Yogi Desai's approach to stress reduction is gaining acceptance, although many Americans are still leery of doing too much hard psychological spadework. These are the people who, in the words of the Rolling Stones, prefer to go "running for the shelter of a mother's little helper." The "little helper" in this case being tranquilizing agents like Valium or Xanax.

"We want instant gratification," Dr. Thorn says. "People think that if they can take a pill or some other substance, (stress) will all go away. That's simply not the case, and that's also why we have so many people who are addicted to pills, food, alcohol. We must realize is that what controls us is our own mind. That is where the answers and the solutions lie — in our minds, not in a pill or a substance."

Yogi Desai
The ancient methods that Yogi Desai employs have been gaining ground in the United States, and mainstream practitioners like Dr. Thorn now embrace elements of treatment that in years past might have been regarded as, well, kookish or off the wall.

Things like meditation and biofeedback have earned a respected place in modern therapy.

As the problem of stress has grown — and the economic recession only aggravates this already serious problem — doctors and psychologists have begun to explore avenues of treatment that embrace a holistic approach.

"Freud was an atheist," points out Dr. Thorn. "Spirituality and psychology were often seen as exclusive of each other. It's only been in the last 50 years or so that we have come to accept that we are creatures of mind, body and spirit."

Moreover, Dr. Thorn advises people with stress problems to remain open to a variety of therapeutic approaches. One size does not fit all when it comes to therapy.

"Find a vocabulary that talks to you," she says.

Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician, was one of the first mainstream doctors to champion the methods espoused by New Age practitioners like Yogi Desai and his brethren. With the publication in 1975 of his book "The Relaxation Response," Dr. Benson began to demystify the process of meditation and showed how it could be accessible to the masses. He also began to quantify the benefits of meditation and revealed — through validated scientific studies — that it could lower blood pressure and relieve a number of stress-related ailments and conditions. In 1979, Dr. Benson published "The Mind/Body Effect," which further validated the holistic approach to health. He continues to explore the use of ancient practices and old-fashioned faith in a higher power to alleviate stress and the illnesses that accompany it.

Yogi Desai insists that the overwhelming majority of those who attend his seminars learn to live in what he calls a "zero stress zone." But the yogi remains somewhat oblique when asked to explain his methods, which is probably not surprising since his seminars are not free.

"In most people, their behavior comes from a preprogrammed past in which they have experienced trauma, hurt and pain in their interpersonal relationships or in dealing with life's situations," he explains. "I call it an 'incomplete gestalt.' That means you try to solve something, control something that is really an uncontrolled, unfulfilled, unfinished experience. So it keeps coming back for us to deal with." These unresolved issues, he posits, present themselves in the form of stress.

Key to disrupting this process of "incomplete gestalt" is the learning of specific breathing techniques, he says.

"Your breath and your mind, your breath and your emotions, your breath and your fears are very intimately interconnected," he says. "If you change your breath temporarily, you interrupt your thinking and your emotional reactive patterns and that interruption gives you an opportunity to reassess the situation and give you more clarity and objectivity."

He began his study of yoga some 60 years ago, at the age of 16, in his native India under the tutelage the legendary Swami Shri Kripalvanandji. Yogi Desai came to the United States in 1960 to study art. He settled in Philadelphia and established a reputation as a preeminent teacher of hatha yoga, which involves purification techniques and meditation and was neither widely practiced nor understood at that time. Yogi Desai quickly developed a devoted and enthusiastic core of followers.

Andrew Cohen, a writer who specializes in spirituality and New Age issues, notes that in the early 1970s Yogi Desai "went from being a successful yoga teacher to a true guru in his own right."

His work and his reputation flourished until 1994 when he become embroiled in a sex scandal that took place in an ashram he had founded in Pennsylvania. Yogi Desai, who was married and who preached sexual abstinence for the unmarried, was accused of having sexual relations with three female followers at the ashram. As a result, he was banished from the ashram he had founded.

Mr. Cohen writes that Yogi Desai "left behind him a wake of intense anger and profound disillusionment." Mr. Cohen further laments that such scandals serve to reinforce longstanding negative stereotypes about practitioners of spiritual practices that are not rooted in traditional Western thought.

Yogi Desai admits that he did indeed transgress with the women.

"Yes, yes," he says when asked if the allegations of sexual misconduct were true. He hints at the possible existence of a plot to discredit him but falls short of saying that he was set up.

For what it's worth, Yogi Desai's serenity seems not the least disturbed by probing questions about his past sexual misconduct.

"I learned from it," he says. "That situation changed me so much that people tell me that I am a different person. Absolutely I learned from it."

To reinforce this point of transformation, snatches a piece of paper from a table and reads a quote from Deepak Chopra, the guru of gurus. Dr. Chopra has written that Yogi Desai's past problems "have taken him to a greater level of self discovery. His inner work is reflected in his presence and in the quality of his teachings."

Yogi Desai's beliefs and practices are also reflected in his physical appearance. At 76, he could pass for a man 10 to 15 years his junior and even on a broiling August afternoon he remains cool and collected, with not a trace of sweat to be found.

He says he lives a "yoga lifestyle," which includes a vegetarian diet "that is digestible and nourishing, though I will eat anything for pleasure once in awhile but not consistently as an every day routine.

"I have woven lifestyle into yoga principles which cover diet, sleeping, rest and entertainment," he says.

Yogi Desai does not disdain traditional medical practices and seeks regular checkups. He says he is free of any ailments and notes that doctors marvel that man of his years does not take any prescribed medications.

Seven years ago, Yogi Desai decamped to Salt Springs in Marion County, hard by the Ocala National Forest. He spends little time at his Florida retreat, however.

"I teach all over the world and all over America," he says. "I travel a lot."

He says his teachings and seminars reach a wide audience because learning to deal with stress can open new avenues of enlightenment for virtually everyone.

"What I teach is almost like a new life," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the people who come in our workshop see amazing changes in their life through this approach."

Yogi Desai's claims may seem a bit exaggerated, but the basics of his approach seem sound, according to Dr. Thorn, the Fort Myers psychologist.

She says stress becomes a problem when we allow it to become a problem — an assessment that is not all that different from Yogi Desai's theory.

"The difference between a challenge and overwhelming stress is in our mind," she says. "It is our definition of what is going on, how we view what we must confront. Nietzsche said there is no reality, only perceptions."

While Dr. Thorn advocates for natural therapeutic measures, she — like other mainstream professionals — recognizes that medications prescribed by a physician is sometimes necessary and prudent.

"Medication has its place," she points out. "Some people are so completely overwhelmed by their stress and anxiety that they can't even begin to lay their perceptions on the tables. Medication can be beneficial to these patients."

She likens medication to putting training wheels on a bicycle, which help steady the rider initially, but at some point they must come off if emotional independence is to be achieved.

.. seminar >> Amrit Desai will conduct his seminar, "Enter the Zero Stress Zone," Friday through Sunday, Sept. 25-27, at McSpadden Hall at Naples United Church of Christ in North Naples, 5200 Crayton Road. The cost of the seminar is $99 per person. The fee includes lunch on Saturday, Sept. 25. The seminar hours are 7-9 p.m. on Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 1-4 p.m. on Sunday. The event is sponsored by The Rotary Club of Naples and will benefit Kids Against Hunger of SW Florida. For information, call 821-2266 or 691-1322 or e-mail peggy@stonewaterstudio.com or annmariefox@ comcast.net. To register online, go to www. stonewaterstudio.com/amritsignup.php.

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